In college, I had a few professors who left me snoring, but I’ve seen lectures since where speakers raise boring the audience to an absolute art form. (It’s a very strange talent.)
How do they do it? Is it their subject matter? Their way of speaking? (Bueller? Anyone? Anyone?) Or is it something about who they are?
If you want to get paid for speaking, you need to have clear answers as to how these speakers cause their audiences to lose interest at light speed -- so you can do exactly the opposite.
As part of my research for my book (“The Message of You”), I wanted to find those answers for you – so I watched a lot of professional and amateur speakers (both live and on video) to see how they told their signature stories. Some of those speakers were entertaining and inspiring; others opened their mouths and sucked the energy right out of the room as if they were vampires in the Twilight series.
There was one main difference between the two types of speakers: narcissism.
If the reason you open your mouth in front of others is because you need attention, you can instantly turn yourself into an energy vampire. How? You aren’t speaking to share something with the audience that helps them, or is on the topics that they want to hear about. Instead, you’re talking about what interests you, with the goal of using their attention to feed your starving ego. That might feel great (for you) for a minute or two, but as people stop paying attention, fall asleep, or even get up and leave – at some point even the most clueless speaker should realize that something isn’t working.
People often assume that what they have to say about themselves and their own thoughts, experiences, and feelings is always interesting. Maybe that’s because they can recline on a couch in an office and talk to a nodding therapist who will hang on every word for sixty minutes. But -- unless you’re paying each member of your audience $150 an hour (like the therapist is getting) – don’t expect the same reaction.
Imagine that same therapist is working for free, and has three options of what to do with an hour:
- Answer a phone call from a travel agent with answers about an Australia trip the therapist has been itching to take.
- Go down the hall to a lecture on “How to double your medical practice income”
- Listen to someone babble on for an hour with dozens of examples of how their younger sister always got more attention, and how that is the reason for every conceivable disaster in the last two decades, from failed marriages to Hurricane Katrina.
It’s not hard to guess that option 3 is never going to be picked... but it’s amazing how many speakers start telling stories with no thought about what is – or isn’t – something of interest to the listener.
Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t tell personal stories, or open up about your thoughts, experiences, and feelings onstage. That sharing and vulnerability makes it possible to connect more deeply with your audience… but only if you include them in the process, and even more importantly – they, not you, become the main focus.
If you’re saying, “I” “me” or “my” too much, you’re on the wrong track, especially if you’re talking about problems:
“The other kids teased me” … “People at work wouldn’t listen to my ideas” … “I never got my Christmas pony!”
If you sound like “Debbie Downer” – complaining without offering solutions -- your audience is going to tune out. You’ll see it in their faces, and in their body language if you pay attention, because audiences are ALWAYS giving you feedback. But, if you don’t see their signals, you can always just ask.
“By a show of hands, how many of you would like to hear why I felt unloved as I child?”
“Okay, and now, how many of you would like to know instead why YOU felt unloved as a child, and how you can overcome those lingering feelings of self doubt in way that will give you the confidence to change your life?
Changing the focus to make the story about your audience – and what they care about -- can make a huge difference.
Audiences – and amateur performers -- are a lot like the people in a therapist’s office; their favorite topic is themselves. What a successful speaker has to remember – is that the focus always needs to be on whoever is paying the bill.